29 January 2012

New Products on the Old School Horizon

If you want more Old School commercial products, dinner is prepared.

On the horizon is new OSR content from both Goodman Games and Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast. There is a lot of talk on the Internets about both.

First up, Wizards of the Coast is re-releasing the big three hardcover manuals of AD&D (1e): The Player's Handbook, The Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual. My original copies are in very usable shape as yours may be. However, the re-releases will feature new covers (boo) and a portion of the profits go to fund the Gygax memorial. This more than anything would lead me to buy the re-issues. I would be more tempted to send $100 directly to the fund.

I should explain that I am not now nor have I been partial to the game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I appreciate that I may be in the minority in a small niche.

The other big D&D news is that Wizards is gearing up for a fifth edition of D&D. Again, I wish them great success with their efforts, but frankly I am uninterested in that product.

Goodman games is launching a OSR retro-clone (sort of) called Dungeon Crawl Classics. From the beta rules, the game seems to have some interesting twists on 1e. Although I am unlikely to run a DCC campaign, I may buy the rule books (because I have a problem). Goodman grabbed a bunch of illustrators (those that remain with us anyway) to illuminate the manuscript, including Jeff Dee, Erol Otis and the recently departed Jim Roslof.

From the "what's in it for me" department, none of these products are on my critical path for gaming. The B/X rules are done, stable and available today. This idea that the RPGs need new editions of the rules is frankly off-putting to me. Does chess need new rules? How about dominoes? I appreciate new variants, but I often stick with what hooked me in the first place.

28 January 2012

Keeping the party in the dungeon

From Greyhawk Grognard

«To wit, characters in a dungeon go through two or three rooms, find themselves down some hit points and/or spells, and then return to the surface, heal up and re-memorize spells to return on the next day. Or, alternatively, they barricade themselves in a room and camp out in the dungeon itself. It's a problem that especially presents itself in lower-level games, because the spell casters have few spells and must recharge more often.»

Whether this is a problem or not depends on your expectations. Frankly, given the high mortality rate of low level characters, it's surprising that they don't rest after every encounter (I ran a brief adventure in which this pretty much happened).

You can't blame the players. The game asks them to invest some emotional effort into customizing their characters. Players naturally do not want to throw that away early in a campaign.

If the DM allows for quick PC replacement of expired characters, the game loses a lot of its frisson. D&D isn't Donkey Kong.

The suggestion of the article linked above is to make the monsters more wary of PC incursions. That is exactly the recommendation found in The Keep on the Borderlands.

The essence of RPGs (and most other games) is the fallout from player choices. Sometimes a rapid, unyielding assault is the best tactical decision. However, this is rarely the case for low-level characters.

My own preference is to allow the party to rest whenever and wherever they choose and to put the monsters on guard (if warranted). For example, an aborted assault on a liar of orcs will cause them to post more guards and even create new traps at the entrance. A dragon who repels invaders will not be caught napping a second time. On the other hand, a tomb filled with zombies, skeletons and wights will not change their behavior once the party is out of sight.

Also, I see no harm in starting out the party with several potions of healing. That at least gets them through one extra encounter before a rest.

If you feel like giving potions for free to a party is "Monty Hall," then simply have the potions expire in a week and make them have no resell value.

26 January 2012

GM Questionnaire

At the intersection of hubris, banality and spam is the self-interview. However, this seemed like a good idea at the time.

Originally posted by Zak S.

GM Questionnaire

Repost and answer. Or, if you don't have a blog, answer in the comments. Or be a big rebel and do neither.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

I like to write modules. Once, I had a dungeon where the walls screamed and bled. That seemed pretty creepy at the time; I was ten.

These days, I am more proud of the "darling" elements I leave out of a game. Set the table, but allow the GMs to serve the meal. People are smarter than you think.

2. When was the last time you GMed?

About a week or so ago. The game was Labyrinth Lords and the adventure was B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.

3. When was the last time you played?

The last CRPG I played was Fallout: New Vegas (about 6 months ago). The last time I played a pen and paper RPG as a player was close to thirty years ago -- in the eighties.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

Easy, but I need three sentences.

Several children of Little Flanders have gone missing near an abandoned house of ill-repute. A desperate town has begged your heroes to exorcise the house of evil spirits and rescue the children. Can you brave the dangers of the Manse on Murder Hill?

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

Usually, my players are waiting for me. But normally, I'm reading ahead in the adventure.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

I don't eat while I play.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

I find it emotionally draining, but that's a lot to do with using google hangouts to run the sessions remotely. It's like having a two hour teleconference. My sessions are necessarily concentrated, but still fun.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

I don't remember back that far.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

Well, I de-emphasize the "community theatre" aspect of RPGs and instead focus on presenting tactical situations to overcome. I don't mind humor in the game as long as it doesn't rehash Monty Python sketches or Princess Bride.

10. What do you do with goblins?

What don't I do with them! Goblins and goblinoids are goto monsters for low-level players. I like them more than skelies and zombies these days. Goblins are social creatures who can be as clever and formidable as you want them to be. Remember, in groups of 12 or more, goblins can wreck a low-level party's day. TPK!

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

I find the classic Brother's Grimm stories inspirational. Even Dr. Seuss presents some ideas. Take the Cat in the Hat (which I have read to my son every night for the past year). The Cat is an agent of chaos who may be well-meaning, but causes mass destruction none-the-less. Make the Cat a human prince that the PCs need to guard for a few days until his coronation and you have the bare bones of a good romp.

I favor the "generic fantasy" world as described in the Moldvay/Cook rules. World building is a waste of time.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

I suppose you had to be there but in the current campaign, the magic-user with a crappy sling is killing more goblinoids than the burly fighter with a two-handed sword.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

I have been pretty immersed in the Labyrinth Lord's rules of late. I enjoy re-reading my collection of Dragon and White Dwarf mags. The old D&D Gazetteers are great too. I try to keep up with the OSR blogs, but that's almost impossible for a working parent.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

Erol Otis.

Don't over-think it. Shut the front door!

All of his work is highly evocative, but the back cover of B2 crystalize the game of D&D for me. Young adventurers, full of promise arriving at a formidable keep at what I take to be sunset. The colors send me.

Like Hellboy's Mike Mignola, Otis is a high contrast, low detail illustrator and that sends me.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

It's just a game, dude. It's not like I threaten them with cancer or something.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

I am having a great time with my current campaign.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

The Google hangouts + twiddla combo is almost perfect for what I want out of the game. I would like software that allows me to slowly unveil a map, but crudely whiteboarding the dungeon is pretty charming too.

I am old. I don't want to have people in my house for 4, 6, 8, 12 (20?) hours at a time.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

I like a lot of games, so I don't know if this is about differing RPGs or differing games of any kind.

Had you asked what non-RPG game is most similar to D&D I would say a gambling game, like poker or craps. I hadn't realized that so much of D&D is essentially craps. And you know what? Craps has been around for more than 100 years. Other dice games have been around much longer.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

I tend to see synergies and confluences rather than dialectics.

I will volunteer that I loathe any RPG mash-up in which elves roam modern cities with pierced noses and fireballs.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?

No actors, please. And no rules lawyers.

Come beat up orcs, think through the occasional puzzle and roll your d20s well.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?

Having a son has really made me sensitive to PCs senselessly slaughtering monster families who could be dealt with more humanely. Sure, we can pull apart worms all day, but can we create them? No? Then maybe we should think twice before stomping on the ones we have.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

A Fallout PnP RPG that details the SPECIAL system would be desirable. I know there have been semi-official and ametuer attempts to do this. Perhaps Dan at Goblinoid Games can crack this nut.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

You mean, besides this blog that address the faceless hordes of the Interwebs?

24. Do you allow player innovation or require character skills?

I don't like skill systems for D&D. Ability checks are sufficient for me. I might be influenced in this from my flirtations with the TSR Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

25 By the book or Off the cuff?

I like to have a plan, but there is a lot of improvising inside of that plan at "runtime."

26 Characters should die...?

Characters die. That's the game.

I am on record as saying that PCs that make it to 9th level or so should be retired. The fun is in building up the character. High-level PCs are really a wank-fest.

I strictly forbid apotheosis.

27 Dice fall where they may or a little fudging never hurt.

Fudging when necessary -- in favor of the PCs. However, sometimes you need a wandering monster even if the dice don't say so.

28 How many combats can a player expect a session.

Great question. In a two hour session, I think my players get about 4 or so combats.

29 House rule you think everyone should use.

First level PCs get max hit points. They are so fragile anyway that they are always one or two orc hits away from death even with this bonus.

30 Crab Rangoons, yes or no?

When ordering Chinese food, my wife insists on these. As for D&D monsters, I prefer Crab Dragoons. Get it?

Hey, where are you going?

21 January 2012

Thoughts on Armor Class

This is really just a random note that has been observed many times in the past, but I wish D&D had the notion of both a "difficulty to hit" stat and a "damage resistance" stat. Armor class, as one stat, models this poorly.

For example, a dude in plate mail is actually pretty easy to hit. Plate mail is heavy and restricts movement. However, it is hard to damage someone in layers of metal plates. Similarly, it is harder to hit a nimble dude in leather armor, but when you do, it takes less effort to wound him.

In the video game, Fallout, this is modeled well. There is nasty looking metal armor in the game, but it provides limited defensive value against energy attacks.

I am not proposing a system of damage resistance for OD&D. I am just lamenting the defensive model Gygax and company choose. It does have the advantage of being simple to understand, though.

UPDATE: Looks like OD&D artist and Villians and Vigilantes grandee Jeff Dee beat me to the punch.

Here's a snapshot of my desk, which captures how I play D&D these days:

16 January 2012

Keep on Borderlands, day 3

Our heroes are making progress.

From the rude sketch above, you might be able to tell that the party successfully cleared out the kobalds from the "Chaos Scar" ravine. This was a hard fought victory that required a party of eight rather than six.

Because I and my player are new fathers, I was happy that the party decided against slaughtering the innocent kobald kiddies. There is a limit to my imagination.

So much was I struck at the horror of humans slaughtering whole families of goblins that I was inspired to write a module sequence around this. More about this when I am finished.

Once again, twiddla is essential to making this work. This virtual table top provides enough grounding for even tactical discussions, as evidenced by the arrows in that screenshot.

Also, the two shared google spreadsheets (one for the character roster, one for the campaign diary) really take a huge bean-counting burden off my shoulders. This is the first time I have even come close to tracking turns/hours/days and it adds a wonderful dimension to the game.

Even though the rules say that I should not allow the PCs to level during the adventure, I believe that as they are based at the Keep, they should be able to train adequately. Not only are first level characters incredibly fragile, but the encounters in the remaining caves will kill them easily without some leveling.

What fun!

This fire elemental looks crazy:

14 January 2012

Tonight's session: The Keep on the Borderlands

My group began module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands today. As usual, we used Google+ hangout for video chat and Twiddla for mapping. The above scrawling suggest that the party got into cave A, fought 6 kobolds and 18 giant rats. However, the rats killed their magic-user straight away. I thought this might be a TPK moment, but the party rallied. Great fun!

For my needs, Twiddla is working out A LOT better than Hangouts with Extras (which includes whiteboarding). Twiddla has a bigger virtual whiteboard, which we need, and better drawing tools.

Again, we share a spreadsheet to track the character roster. That works out really well. We even bought equipment with it and it made calculating the final sale easy!

I crafted another spreadsheet to track play time and events. I call this a diary. Across the columns are turns (1-6) and down the rows are hours (0-23). This makes it easier to know what time of day it is at all times. Also, I track encounters there. I should make a template of this available, but really it's easy to create for yourself.

When I was 30, I couldn't imagine that I'd be playing D&D at 40, but there you are.

I also used the Labyrinth Lord DM screen which I printed out from PDF. That was very helpful. I realize there are many version of this utility out there.

And now, orcs:

11 January 2012

Stack Overflow for Role Playing Games

Stack Overflow, the incredibly useful question and answer site for all things tech, has launched a site for RPGs and another for Legos. Amazing.

Some of the most popular questions are:

And now, a half-orc assassin:

10 January 2012

Total Party Kill

The Total Party Kill is a phrase I learned only recently. I have experienced this on World of Warcraft (quiet a few times, sadly). This happens in the Fallout series all the time. In Pencil and Paper RPGs, the TPK event was considered among my peers as undesirable and generally anti-fun. We preferred to achieve the imaginary mission objectives and reap the fantasy rewards for pretend glory.

06 January 2012

Too many keeps

Due to recent purchases from eBay, I have about six B2 modules, the Keep on the Borderlands.

From the logos, I can tell 2 of them are from 1980 and 3 are from 1982.

Actually, I can narrow this down a bit.

Oh my. One of them appears to be 1st print.

Another is a second print.

Two are fourth print.

Two appear to be sixth print.

Interesting that the modules vary in height. The earliest prints are larger.

I will be keeping at least one of these (I think we can guess which that will be). Not sure if I sure sell the others, offer them as a prize or keep them, like Smaug sitting on a pile of gold.

You thoughts?

05 January 2012

On Virtual Tabletop software

From Bats in the Attic:

If tabletop roleplaying is to compete then it needs to emphasis the elements that are unique to it alone. Namely the human referee and how easy it is to let the imagination roam free with the human referee interacting with his players. Just as important making it easy for players to find one another.

Let me "mod this comment up."

Video games did not kill pencil and paper role playing, but they did make the marketplace for children's attention more crowded. What drives me back to thinks like D&D and Interactive Fiction is that both rely on the imaginations of the players. No pre-canned MMO or even CRPG can really touch that.

GM Merit Badges

GM Merit badges.

Simply brilliant.

01 January 2012

Lego Heroica

On the suggestion of James M I picked up a few boxes of Heroica.

Looks cute.